It’s a widely accepted principle that even if trying to achieve a noble goal, it is not a justification to do harm in doing so. Whether one is trying to fund the NHS or provide kittens and puppies for all, if ever such an ill-thought out idea as a mansion tax is introduced, it is likely that the law of unintended consequences will find myriad ways to demonstrate itself. In few sectors will the damage be greater than in that of our nation’s cultural and architectural heritage where decades of hard work and conservation of our country houses will be sacrificed to play a short-term political game.
Let me make clear that this objection is not party political – I would object as vigorously regardless of whoever tried to propose it. Obviously the devil is in the detail but if we assume a tax levied on homes valued at £2m or more at 1% of the property value to be paid annually there are many obvious and profound flaws with the idea – below are a few of them:
- Fallacy of numbers: there are more expensive houses than there are rich people who could afford the tax. Many houses which would be affected have been inherited thus exchanging the large liquid capital requirements of purchase for the more manageable (though not insubstantial) cost of on-going maintenance.
- Value suppression: a house valued at £2m will immediately not be worth £2m when a mansion tax is introduced (thus reducing the projected tax receipts). This will lead to a very hard ceiling on house prices, stagnating the market far below that level as it will prevent others trading up by imposing a disproportionate penalty on anyone purchasing over that price level. Think of all the disadvantages of the current crude banding of Stamp Duty, but magnified.
- Incentive to neglect: if your house is worth just over £2m, there is a benefit to allowing your property to deteriorate so that it can be assessed at being below the threshold. But how often will they be valued? Will it lead to a cycle of neglect and repair to coincide with this? Who will wish to improve their property for fear that it will push it over the punitive threshold?
Perhaps the greatest threat is to the contents of country houses; the art, sculpture, books, tapestries which combine in such an intangible emotive way to create that atmosphere unique to each. When the financial effects of the 1870-80s agricultural depression began to be felt, the first items to be sold were the contents – the Titians, Rubens, Caxtons, Shakespeares, Nollekens, Canovas were taken from their pride of place and sent to auction or dealers, the resulting funds merely delaying the inevitable sale of the house. If we thought the National Lottery Fund was sorely stretched at the moment to acquire for the nation the occasional fine work which appears at auction, there is little chance of them being saved if the volume increases, meaning they will, in many cases, go overseas. Additionally, if the best works have already been sold, then death duties will be a final hammer blow to shatter the cultural and historical unity of the country house, with nothing left to sell or offer in lieu.
This type of crude taxation has been tried before and it is always heritage which pays the price. The many gaunt shells of Scottish country houses, such as Dalquharran Castle or New Slains Castle, which were un-roofed to avoid punitive taxes are sad testament to the folly of this approach. Supporting a mansion tax is to accept a probable return to an era where empty country houses become derelict – ironically coming so soon after the 40th anniversary of the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition. The National Trust will not be able to take them on without an endowment and English Heritage are sorely underfunded already – leaving either neglect or a hope for an influx of foreign wealth to purchase these houses. Without a local owner living there full time, there are likely to be fewer jobs reducing tax revenues and, with the dearth of rural jobs, leading to higher numbers relying on the State for assistance or an exodus to larger urban areas, further damaging the rural environment.
Perhaps there could be exemptions for houses which are open a certain number of days a year or which support useful charitable activities but the danger is that these would be used to justify an idea that is inherently wrong.
This article is deliberately painting a rather bleak picture, partially because there is a real likelihood of any of these outcomes, but also to emphasise just how badly-thought out this crude idea is. It offers no benefits except as a bone to be thrown to a few class warriors but it should seriously worry anyone who cares about the UK’s cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. Owning a country house is a responsibility, not only as a home for the owner and their family, but one owed to society as a whole. It is inevitable and right that tax should be raised to pay for the society we hope to live in, but to wilfully sacrifice four centuries of heritage is an immoral and culturally destructive way to do so, no matter how noble the intended reason.